Johnny Cash: the unplugged album that saved a country legend’s life

Johnny Cash
(Image: © Getty Images)

In 1992, Johnny Cash was all but washed up. Having been reduced to playing a residency in the glitzy fun palaces of Branson, Missouri, a kind of low-rent Las Vegas, he felt deserted by country music radio and all but ignored by his record company. Then he met a hip-hop/metal record producer who not only saved his career but, it’s claimed, added 10 years to his life by recording the groundbreaking solo acoustic classic American Recordings.

Lou Robin (manager): Johnny had been with Polygram since 1986. He owed them one more album and wanted to do a gospel album, but they didn’t want that, so they were kinda at loggerheads.

John Carter Cash (son): He was recovering from a broken jaw caused by dental surgery, and he’d also had surgery on his knee. He was suffering chronic pain and got to a point where he could no longer take opiates for that, but he was determined to endure.

Lou Robin: We were talking to various labels, but none of them were coming up with fresh ideas. Then our agent called one day and said that Rick Rubin of American Recordings, who was a new name to me, would like to meet with John. So we set up a meeting.

February 27, 1993: Rick Rubin goes to see Cash play at The Rhythm Cafe, Santa Ana.

Lou Robin: John’s attitude was that this was just another record company guy, but after the show I took Rick backstage.

John Carter Cash: When they sat down at the table they said: “Hello.” But then my dad and Rick just sat there and stared at each other for about two minutes without saying anything, as if they were sizing each other up.

Johnny Cash: I said: “What’re you gonna do with me that nobody else has done to sell records for me?” He said: “Well, I don’t know that we will sell records. I would like you to sit in my living room with a guitar and two microphones and just sing to your heart’s content, everything you ever wanted to record.” I said: “That sounds good to me.”

Roseanne Cash (daughter): I thought: “This is odd. I wonder how this is gonna work.” Just knowing the acts Rick had worked with, it did cross my mind: “Is he gonna try to make some kind of parody out of dad?”

June 1993: Johnny Cash signs to American Recordings.

Rick Rubin: I had worked pretty much exclusively with young artists, either making their first album or their second album. There might have been minor exceptions to that, but I felt like it would be an exciting challenge to work with an established artist, or a legendary artist who might not be in the best place in his career at the moment.

Lou Robin: One of the first things they did was to exchange cassettes between LA, where Rick was based, and Nashville where Johnny lived.

Rick Rubin: I would send Johnny CDs that contained thirty songs sometimes, other times it might be one. It was just whatever I thought he might like. He might call me back and say: “I like four of these”, or “I like this one a lot”.

American dream team: Cash with Rick Rubin (centre) and Lou Robin (right) in 1997.

American dream team: Cash with Rick Rubin (centre) and Lou Robin (right) in 1997.

June-July 1993: Cash and Rubin begin working in Rubin’s living room off Sunset Strip. Over 70 solo acoustic demos are recorded, many more than once.

Rosanne Cash: Rick became not just his producer but his muse. He was like this angel that swooped down into his life. He gave Dad this wonderful focus, inspiration and passion.

Lou Robin: The living room in Rick’s house in Hollywood was not very big. It had a couple of couches and easy chairs, and along one wall was the recording equipment, and there were heavy drapes which made it a studio quality environment. So Johnny could come in, sit down and just play.

Johnny Cash: It gave me a profound sense of déjà vu. It very much reminded me of the early days at Sun Records. Sam Phillips put me in front of that microphone at Sun Records in 1955 for the first time and said: “Let’s hear what you’ve got. Sing your heart out.” And I’d sing one or two, and he’d say: “Sing another one. Let’s hear one more.”

Lou Robin: They invited various prominent songwriters to come and they each got an hour-long appointment with John. Glenn Danzig was one of those. At the appointment, they would play their songs, Rick would record them and, if John liked them when they listened again, he’d record them.

Glenn Danzig (composer of Thirteen): Rick called and asked if I knew who Johnny Cash was, and I said: “Fuck yeah. I know who Johnny Cash is.” And they said: “Would you write a song for him?” I wrote [Thirteen] in, like, a half-hour, as soon as I got off the phone. The song was just my impression of who Johnny Cash was and what he meant.

John Carter Cash: They also did some tracks with father backed by other musicians, like Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, Tom Petty and others.

Mike Campbell (guitarist, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers): Working in the studio with him was something that I treasure. It was such an intimate moment and he was so kind to us, and to me in particular. He treated me like an equal, which is silly. Johnny Cash is a big hero of mine and my dad.

Rick Rubin: Ultimately, after many experiments, we looked at each other and decided that we liked the acoustic stuff - those first demos - better than any of the experiments. So we decided that’s what the first album should be.

October-December 1993: Final recording sessions are split between Rubin’s living room and Johnny’s studio, The Cash Cabin, on his property in Hendersonville, Tennessee.

Rick Rubin: Even if you had heard a particular song your whole life, when he sang it, all of a sudden you understood it, or thought about the words in a different way, or took the song more seriously.

Johnny Cash: The song is the thing that matters, before I can record, I have to hear it, sing it, and know that I can make it feel like my own, or it won’t work. I worked on these songs until it felt like they were my own.

Nick Lowe (composer of The Beast In Me): He was doing this show at Wembley [probably March 1986]. I had this idea for a song and Carlene [Carlene Carter, wife of Nick Lowe/daughter of Johnny Cash] told him about it, and he said: “I’ll come round and hear it on the way to Wembley.” He turned up with his whole entourage at our house. And I played him the song, which was incredibly embarrassing because it wasn’t really ready yet. And he said: “It’s not right but it’s a really good idea…” And every time I’d see him after that he’d always ask me: “How’s The Beast In Me coming on?”

Finally, after he did a show at the Royal Albert Hall [May 1989] and asked me about it again, I went home and finished it! And I sent it to him, and I didn’t hear anything. Then my stepdaughter went to stay at his house in Jamaica and she told me: “Grampa’s singing your song to everybody.” And next thing I knew, it came out on American Recordings.

Tom Waits (composer of Down There By The Train): I had a friend who was playing guitar with him at the time, Smokey Hormel. Smokey said: “Yeah, Johnny’s going to be doing other people’s tunes. Send us down something.” I had a song and I hadn’t recorded it, so I said: “Hey, it’s got all the stuff that Johnny likes – trains and death, John Wilkes Booth, the cross…”

Lou Robin: Rick would also come to Nashville and they would sit and exchange ideas and philosophies in The Cash Cabin.

John Carter Cash: Back then, it was basically just a room about twenty-seven foot by twenty-nine foot, with a big stairwell up to the loft in the middle. There was no control room. The only recording equipment was a sixteen-bit ADAT recorder and a sixteen-channel mixing board. There were only two microphones . That’s what he used for Why Me Lord?. As far as I know, that was the only song on the first American Recordings album that was actually recorded there.

Rick Rubin: Once we decided what the album was going to be, I suggested: “How would you feel about getting up in a little club and doing some of these songs acoustically? Just to see what it’s like playing them in front of an audience, by yourself?” And he said he was open to it. But he was clearly nervous.

December 3, 1993: At the small club The Viper Room in West Hollywood, to an audience of just 150 people Johnny Cash is introduced on stage by Johnny Depp. The songs Tennessee Stud and The Man Who Couldn’t Cry are recorded live on this occasion, and will appear on the album.

Lou Robin: They sent out invitations, with two days’ notice, to go to The Viper Room. People were packed in belly to belly, back to back. John looked across the room and he could see an incredible Who’s Who of the music and movie business.

Tom Petty: He was nervous about it, never having relied on his own guitar, and I was nervous watching him.

Lou Robin: John was nervous as a cat, but after the response to the first song he got very comfortable.

Flea (bassist, Red Hot Chili Peppers): Johnny Cash came on and sat down there and rocked. No bullshit, no fooling around, just played these incredible songs and destroyed the place.

Rick Rubin: It was an incredible night. Dead silent. You could hear a pin drop. People couldn’t believe it was Johnny Cash there in The Viper Room.

Lou Robin: He sang for forty-five minutes, all the songs. Everybody just went crazy. When he was through, he wanted to give the people a little something more than just forty-five minutes’ worth of music. He leaned down to June, who was in the front row, and said: “What do I do now?” To which she said: “Well, sing your hits.” So that’s what he did.

Rick Rubin: People who were there that night still talk about it as one of the greatest things they’ve ever seen.

April 26, 1994: American Recordings is released.

Leonard Cohen (composer of Bird On A Wire): I didn’t believe my ears. Only the man’s voice and guitar. I was blown away!

Rick Rubin: I think he knew it was good, but it wasn’t until it came out
and got the critical praise that it really sank in. The fact that young people were coming up to him, telling him how much they liked the album, that’s when he really knew.

Johnny Cash: I’m no fool. I know about demographics and the age group that buys most records. So I really had not expected anything more.

Lou Robin: In the music business you can hope to have a few big years and then fade away but American Recordings was the start of a second career. In the final analysis, I’d say those American Recordings albums probably added ten years to his life, because he had something exciting to do again. And I don’t just mean his career, I mean his life. He was refreshed.

At the 1995 Grammy Awards, American Recordings won the award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Rolling Stone later placed it at number 366 on their ‘500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ list.

Additonal sources: The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love and Faith of an American Legend by Steve Turner, johnnycashfanzine.com, Sylvie Simmons for Mojo magazine